As the water level in much of New Orleans begins to slowly recede, officials are preparing to deal with thousands of dead bodies – bodies floating in contaminated water, hidden in damaged homes and even piled together in the freezer of the city’s convention center.
“DMort is telling us to expect up to 40,000 bodies,” Dan Buckner, a funeral home director, said, quoting officials with the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, a volunteer arm of the Department of Homeland Security.
According to a report in the Shelbyville Times-Gazette of Tennessee, Buckner, co-owner of Gowen-Smith Chapel, and his partner are on their way to the Gulf Coast to help deal with the mounting number of dead.
The 40,000 estimate does “not include the number of disinterred remains that have been displaced from … mausoleums,” Buckner told the paper.
The Dmort teams include morticians, medical examiners, coroners, pathologists, anthropologists, odontologists, dental assistants, photographers, police, DNA, X-ray, evidence, fingerprint, mental health and computer specialists, and others such as heavy-equipment operators.
“Until they search each and every remaining house and remove all the fallen materials … they will not know how many people are there,” Buckner said.
The mortician said he expects temporary morgues to be set up for identification.
“My personal opinion is they will be recovering bodies for 30 … to 120 days,” Buckner told the Times-Gazette.
He mentioned bodies will be found “in attics and yards and the water.” People “were told to go to their attic. Then the water came up and they had no way to escape.
“Firemen chopped holes in roofs and found bodies.”
Meanwhile, a National Guardsman showed a reporter the many bodies piled up in the New Orleans Convention Center, including in the freezer.
“Don’t step in that blood – it’s contaminated,” Guardsman Mikel Brooks told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “That one with his arm sticking up in the air, he’s an old man.”
Then he shined the light on a smaller human figure under a white sheet next to the elderly man.
“That’s a kid,” he said. “There’s another one in the freezer, a 7-year-old with her throat cut.”
Continued the soldier: “There’s an old woman,” pointing to a wheelchair covered by a sheet. “I escorted her in myself. And that old man got bludgeoned to death,” he said of the body lying on the floor next to the wheelchair.
The Guardsmen stationed at the center say there are between 30 and 40 bodies in the freezer.
“It’s not on, but at least you can shut the door,” said fellow Guardsman Phillip Thompson.
According to the New Orleans paper, in just one subdivision, Sherwood Forest, survivors who showed up to the Convention Center yesterday said police told them roughly 90 people in the neighborhood had died.
In St. Bernard, 22 bodies were found lashed together. Officials surmised the drowning victims had tried to stay together to keep themselves from being washed away in the storm.
Part of the challenge for officials will be identifying bodies that have been decomposing for days.
“I ain’t got the stomach for it, even after what I saw in Iraq,” said Brooks, referring to the freezer where bodies sat decomposing. “In Iraq, it’s one-on-one. It’s war. It’s fair. Here, it’s just crazy. It’s anarchy. When you get down to killing and raping people in the streets for food and water … and this is America. This is just 300 miles south of where I live.”